World Migratory Bird Day 2022

BFREE celebrated two important bird days on Saturday, May 14 – Global Big Day and World Migratory Bird Day. Global Big Day is an opportunity for citizen scientists to gather essential data about the birds in their area. While World Migratory Bird Day uses a different theme each year to draw attention to challenges migratory birds face across the globe. The 2022 campaign focused on light pollution’s impact on migratory birds. Activities to mark the day were under the theme “Dim the Lights for Birds at Night”.

BFREE staff and students from Lakeland University were excited for the opportunity to participate. We split into three teams to cover as much of the property as possible. Lakeland University began early at the observation tower and were rewarded with an assortment of parrots, raptors and small birds.

In addition to the observation tower, we explored other areas including the garden and orchard, the Agami Lagoon, the cacao agroforest, the boundary line, and various spots along the Bladen River. During our day-long adventure, we observed some beautiful and interesting birds. A few of the many birds we enjoyed included: Common nighthawk, Swallowtail kite, Keel-billed motmot, Amazon kingfisher, Sepia-capped flycatcher, Yellow-headed parrot, and the Great currasow. We observed a total of 117 bird species. Because all participants were not eBird subscribers, we submitted one checklist at the end of the day.

The BFREE Birding Club keeps growing! BFREE participating staff were: Nelly Cadle, Thomas Pop, Sipriano Canti, Marcos Kuk, Jonathan Dubon, Mark Canti, and Heather Barrett.

Celebrating Earth Day

Students from Keene High School in Keene, New Hampshire helped BFREE staff celebrate Earth Day by planting seeds. This is Keene High School teacher, Matt Brady’s, fourth trip to Belize and to BFREE. He is joined by fellow teachers, Christine Gillis, Monica Foley, and Jodie Ballaro. Their group was scheduled to come to the field station in 2020 but was cancelled due to the pandemic. They tried again last year with no luck. This makes us especially thrilled to host them in 2022.

In a BFREE interview with Mark Canti and Jonathan Dubon on Facebook Live for Earth Day, Matt described why he wanted to return. “BFREE is a really special place for lots of reasons. I’m really happy to be here to meet young people like you. People who contribute to the ecology of the area and are conservationists. That is very important to me, the way BFREE is set up to keep young people coming in from the area. This is why we keep coming back.”

In a surprising turn of events for dry season, it began raining at 9am during the student orientation. The rain continued throughout the morning and into the afternoon, but this didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. The students continued their orientation and tour of the facilities. After lunch, everyone divided into groups for service projects. Nine students helped with planting germinated cacao seeds in the nursery. An additional fourteen students helped at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center where they assisted in a project to improve the exterior fence. The remainder of the students supported the long-term large mammal research project by checking camera traps on the property.

We are grateful that Matt, Christine, Monica and Jodie worked so hard to come back to BFREE this year.

Creating Strong Rootstock for Heirloom Cacao

Grafting is the preferred method of vegetative propagation for cacao (Theobroma cacao). Grafting allows farmers to choose the qualities they want in their trees and reduce expenses related to sourcing cacao trees. But before a tree can be grafted, you must grow the rootstock.

This year our seeds are coming from Ana Maria farm in Guatemala to create our rootstock. This variety has been bred over many years to produce a strong and robust seedling that is fast-growing, can withstand drought conditions, and provides excellent rootstock for BFREE’s heirloom criollo cacao.

In Guatemala, pods are cracked open and the best cacao seeds are carefully selected. After that, they are disinfected for any possible fungal disease. Finally, they are germinated and are ready for transport. Ten thousand seeds will travel to Belize and reach BFREE today in order to be planted tomorrow on Earth Day.

Special thanks to Erick Ac for providing the cacao seeds and the wonderful photos!

New Cacao Operations Manager

Congratulations to Mr. Elmer Tzalam. He has recently taken on the new role of Cacao Operations Manager for Crioco Cacao, LLC. This is well-deserved promotion for Elmer. He has been a faithful employee to BFREE for over ten years.

Elmer Tzalam is Crioco Cacao LLC’s Cacao Operations Manager

Elmer began working with BFREE in June 2011 as the project’s first cacao farm worker. Prior to BFREE, Elmer received cacao training internationally with the organization CATIE. He used the knowledge gained in training to support the growth of the cacao trees at BFREE. For years, he nurtured the cacao and coffee trees in that original farm plot – now designated Block 1. When it was necessary to begin collecting data on the wild Criollo trees found throughout the property, Elmer took responsibility. He would hike deep into the forest, sometimes alone, sometimes with other BFREE staff or volunteers.

He is multi-talented and has many years of work experience prior to joining the BFREE team in 2011. Because of his well-rounded work history, Elmer has filled many roles at the field station. From supporting student groups, to maintaining the facilities, to delivering supplies, to training new cacao staff – he has done a little bit of everything and he understands how this field station works.

“Elmer has been instrumental in the development of BFREE’ cacao program since its inception,” stated Jacob Marlin, Crioco Cacao, CEO. “His extensive experience in the many cacao operations such as the nursery, the wild trees, the farm and with post-harvest processing make him invaluable to our agroforestry program.”

The cacao nursery at BFREE

Each year the cacao nursery at BFREE is restored and prepared for the new planting season. Any old plants or trees are removed and fresh liner is laid, the area is weeded and trimmed, and damaged poles are replaced. Additionally, the nursery was expanded to hold more bags and the irrigation system was modified for more efficient watering.

Soon after those preparations were made, came the task of filling thousands of nursery bags. Lucky for us, ARCC participants showed up just in time to help fill bags with a sand and soil mixture. Because of them, a huge job became much more manageable.

BFREE Cacao Fellows are assigned to the management of the cacao nursery, so Mark Canti has replaced Lenardo Ash as caregiver to the young cacao and shade trees. Once bags are filled and put in place, Mark waters and fertilizers the soil to prepare for seed planting. In the coming months, he will be responsible for ensuring the successful growth of the nursery trees.

Shade trees are just as important to this project as cacao trees, so both short-term and long-term shade tree seedlings are included. Therefore, five varieties of short-term shade trees were planted: Pigeon Pea, Plantain, Bananas, Erythrina and Madre de cacao. Long-term shade trees include Bribri, Jobillo, two species of Barbajalote, and Mahogany. We continue to search the property for other types of seedpods and saplings.

Testing sugar content in cacao

Cacao staff at BFREE are learning to harvest cacao pods when they are the sweetest. Last month, Elmer Tzalam and Mark Canti harvested cacao pods to test sugar content at different stages of ripeness. They carefully opened each pod one at a time. Then they scraped out several beans and place them in a mesh bag. They squeezed a few drops of juice from the bag onto a tool called a refractometer. Finally, they held the refractometer to their eye and looked into the direction of a bright light source. As a result, they received a reading of “degrees brix” which is the sugar content of an aqueous solution. 

One degree Brix is 1 gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution and represents the strength of the solution as percentage by mass. Brix Refractometers are built to measure the sucrose content of a sample through refraction. These meters are capable of incredibly quick and accurate results and are used often in the food and beverage industries. 

The wild, heirloom criollo cacao at BFREE has never been grown in a farm setting. Therefore, the data we collect is new information to the cacao industry and is part of our efforts to characterize this ancient heirloom fine flavor variety. By using tools like the refractometer, we will begin to better understand the most desirable moment to harvest a pod.

Additional info about how Brix refractometers work

Traditional refractometers are handheld analogue instruments. They are held up to the light, so that it shines through the sample. The light is then directed through a prism and lenses onto a measurement scale. A shadow will be case on the measurement scale at the angle where total internal reflection occurs. Observing this shadow through the eyepiece gives the brix reading.

A special thanks to Skyler and Austin from the visiting ARRC group for their enthusiastic participation in this process.

Cacao Fellow, Mark Canti Illustrates Passion for Wildlife

BFREE Cacao Fellow, Mark Canti, continues to shine in various disciplines at BFREE. In his first year of the two-year Cacao Fellowship program, Mark has proven to be talented in cacao grafting and data collection. Though his focus is primarily on cacao, Mark has expressed that his interests are more than just agroforestry and that he is particularly fascinated and inspired by the wildlife that surrounds him while working at BFREE.

This week, Mark continued to illustrate his passion for wildlife, working through the weekend to support BFREE’s bi-annual Hicatee Health Assessment. Last year he participated in an online Wildlife Veterinary course offered by Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic (BWRC), and now he put some of the skills he learned from Dr. Isabelle to the test.

The 2022 Hicatee Health Assessments’ purpose is to determine the sex ratio of the captive-born turtles as well as collect growth data and review the overall health of a subset of turtles. Additionally, ultrasounds were performed on adult female turtles.

Donning his Hicatee Hero t-shirt, Mark fit right in with Team Hicatee and was an invaluable addition to the team. In addition to shadowing the veterinarians performing necropsies and endoscopies, Mark has helped with data collection, photographing the various activities, and supporting all of the other important aspects of the health assessment.

Introducing #CantiCam

Puma or Mountain Lion caught on BFREE Camera Traps 2021

This July, BFREE launched a new wildlife monitoring program with Panthera Wildlife Cameras. These cameras are designed to endure the wet, humid rainforest conditions and are perfect for the BFREE Privately Protected Area. Protected Areas Manager and Head Park Ranger, Sipriano Canti, is tasked with managing the project. Canti states “With this monitoring program, we are playing an important role in identifying the wildlife that utilize the property. Not only for their homes but as a pass through to the neighboring protected areas.”

Sipriano Canti, BFREE Head Ranger, checking a wildlife camera in the young cacao agroforest

Executive Director, Jacob Marlin, has identified three goals for the project. 1. Several cameras will be situated in the cacao agroforest and will look at the species utilizing the area and their abundance over time; 2. Monitor and observe the species found throughout different parts of the reserve; and 3. Contribute to a regional jaguar monitoring research program.

Fun with Social Media

The wildlife cameras are also giving us a great opportunity to share with our audience the many cool things that move around the property on a daily (and nightly) basis. Look out for regular updates under these themes and more! #TapirTuesday #WildcatWednesday #FurryFriday #CantiCam

Adopt a Cacao Tree

In 2015, cacao beans discovered on wild trees within the BFREE Privately Protected Area were submitted for genetic testing to the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP). The results determined that this could be the original chocolate tree, 100% pure Criollo parentage, grown and revered by the ancient Mayan Civilizations, and one of the few pure wild cacaos known to exist on the planet. The beans were given the designation of “heirloom fine flavor” by HCP, only the 11th chocolate in the world to receive such an honor. Since this designation, BFREE has become an active partner with HCP. As part of HCP’s work, they have generously been providing small grants to BFREE over the past two years to assist with the development of our work to propagate heirloom fine flavor cacao.

Become a Champion of Heirloom Cacao Farmers

We are excited to share that you can Adopt a BFREE Cacao Tree through HCP’s adoption program to champion heirloom farmers and families around the world. Adoptions are either a one-time payment of $180 US (or 12 monthly payments of $15 US).  For each adoption, you will receive a digital personalized adoption certificate, an Information card including the farm overview, location, and photo of your adopted cacao tree, and three (3) bars of fine chocolate made from the Heirloom Cacao farm where your adopted tree lives.  

Adopt a tree from BFREE by selecting “HCP #11, BFREE Demonstration Cacao Farm, Belize” at the link below!


The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund

HCP was established in 2012 with the mission to “identify and preserve fine flavor “heirloom” cacao for the preservation of biological diversity and the empowerment of farming communities.” Launched in partnership with the USDA and the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, HCP was formed in response to the global pressures of environmental change, deforestation, and economic influences threatening the world’s supply of high-quality, flavorful cacao. Recognizing these endangered cacao trees are the foundation for not only delicious chocolate but also the livelihood of many farmers and farming communities, the HCP is the first initiative to identify and map the world of high-quality, fine flavor cacao and certify growers of these endangered trees.  

Learn more about BFREE’s designation and view a short documentary about our heirloom cacao: HCP #11 – HEIRLOOM CACAO PRESERVATION FUND